Marine life at risk from plastic in ocean

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  • Reasearchers at BIOS trawl for plastic in the ocean. File picture by Tiffany Wardman

    Reasearchers at BIOS trawl for plastic in the ocean. File picture by Tiffany Wardman

Bacteria able to adapt quickly to changing conditions

Rising sea temperatures and changing acidity in the Atlantic could be a positive for populations of bacteria in Bermuda’s waters.
In a recent study by the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and Princeton University, scientists examined what effect predicted environmental changes would have on photosynthetic bacteria.
While tiny in size, the organisms process both carbon dioxide and nitrogen, making them important contributors to the global carbon cycle and global nitrogen cycle.
Dr Michael Lomas, of BIOS, said: “The photosynthetic bacteria commonly dominate the plant biomass in the subtropical and tropical ocean, bringing global relevance to these findings.”
The study showed that the bacteria was able to quickly adapt to the changing conditions, and was able to increase its carbon and nitrogen fixing rates.
However, researchers also determined that changes in ocean acidity don’t impact all species of cyanobacteria equally, or in a predictable manner.

Tiny fragments of discarded plastic afloat in Bermuda’s waters pose a risk to marine life, according to a researcher.

Bonnie Monteleone, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina’s Wilmington campus, recently took part in a research expedition as part of the Plastic Ocean Project, investigating the extent and effect of plastic pollution in the North Atlantic.

She said only a small amount of plastic was found in the samples taken from the ocean’s surface however the study touched only a minute fraction of the Sargasso Sea.

“We collected 15 samples, the most we have ever done and in every single sample we got plastic,” she said.

“We collected only around a handful of plastic, but we were looking what was pulled from a trough a metre by half-a-metre. It’s one small thread in an enormous area.”

Ms Monteleone worked with the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences and several other students on the project. Together, they collected the samples 30 to 40 miles off the coast of the Island while on board the R/V Atlantic Explorer.

The team also collected a variety of the marine organisms that call the Sargasso Sea home. Many of the species, she said, were easily mistaken at first glance for shards of plastic.

“If you are going to talk about impact, you should indicate the marine life associated with it,” she said. “We looked at these marine animals, many of which look a lot like the plastic we were collecting.

“If marine life are mistaking the plastic for food, it will be consumed. When you consider that the first piece of plastic you touched in your life is still around unless it was burned, you start to see the scale of the problem.”

She said plastics have been found in sea birds, turtles, fish and whales. In one recent study off the coast in the US Pacific Northwest, a single bird was discovered with 454 pieces of plastic in its stomach.

Ms Monteleone said she was drawn to research in the North Atlantic by similar studies in the Pacific, which revealed a massive collection of floating plastics.

“The North Atlantic isn’t talked about a lot,” she said. “When we started out four years ago I was asking the question, ‘Is this happening in the Atlantic?’ People had been looking at it since the 1970s, but it was considered soft science.”

Once in the ocean, the plastic can linger for hundreds or even thousands of years before breaking down, absorbing organic pollution throughout that time. When the fragments are consumed by marine life, the absorbed toxins come with them.

While the issue may seem to be difficult to tackle, Ms Monteleone said she wanted to focus on the problem because she felt it’s an area where people could make a difference through simple actions — like reducing their use of plastics.

“Of all the environmental issues, this is one that people might be able to clean up. At least it’s visible,” she said.

“First, we have to make people realise that we have a problem.”

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Published Jul 13, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 13, 2012 at 8:48 am)

Marine life at risk from plastic in ocean

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